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A Murrow Moment

Fairly Unbalanced

By William Fisher
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Thursday 14 September 2006

People who are too young to remember the 1930s, 40s, and 50s may not know that the airwaves were filled with hysterical, fear-mongering voices long before we ever heard of Bill O'Reilly.

Back then, the airwaves were radio waves. Nightly, millions of families gathered before their Radiolas and Emersons to listen to the news. There were such "commentators" as Lowell Thomas, Gabriel Heater and H.V. Kaltenborn, whose notion of news consisted largely of reading press releases from the Republican National Committee. On Sunday evenings, there was Walter Winchell, a gossip columnist turned world affairs authority, who always began his program with the greeting, "Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea." Winchell's rabid anti-Roosevelt and anti-New Deal views were barely concealed in his staccato delivery.

Then there was Boake Carter, a certifiable wing-nut who was for a time the country's pre-eminent news commentator. The British-accented Carter had higher ratings than any of the other radio voices. His enemy was anything liberal. He was an apoplectic isolationist who belonged to an Anti-Semitic organization. One of Carter's claims was that the sinking of an American gunboat by the Japanese on a river in China was part of a secret plot by President Roosevelt to plunge the country into a war in Asia. As Carter became increasingly irrational, pressure on CBS and his sponsor, General Foods, grew and CBS canceled his newscast. He later got a three-times-a-week commentary program on the Mutual Network, but was soon moved out of prime time. His rise was meteoric, but his fall was even faster.

But even in these dark days of know-nothing journalism, there were bright spots. One of the brightest was Edward R. Murrow, who set the standard for television journalism. His calm and courageous reporting captured our nation's and the world's attention during the German Blitz of Great Britain in 1940 and 1941. Millions of Americans sat by their radios to hear Murrow's deep, sonorous voice begin, as he began all of his wartime broadcasts, "This is London."

In 1954, at the height of the McCarthy era paranoia, Murrow produced the program that, more than any other single broadcast, has come to define him: A televised critique of Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy.

There's a reason I cite all this old radio-days history. Then, as now, there was little and largely ineffective public push-back against right-wing radio "news." Then, as now, networks controlled the airwaves, and sponsors controlled the networks. Today, we have television as well as radio. And today, both are still controlled by large corporate interests - owners and sponsors.

The impact of today's TV and radio "news" has been well-documented. The nightly news programs of the major broadcast networks are caricatures of the cult of "objectivity," in which anchors feel obliged to present the views of "both sides" of an issue, even when they know one side is peddling falsehoods. In both broadcast and cable outlets, the line between news, commentary and entertainment is no longer decipherable. Which gives us faux history disguised as "docudramas" like ABC's "The Road to 9/11." And since a majority of Americans still get most of their "news" from the "fair, balanced and unafraid" Fox Network, there is no mystery about why a large minority of us still thinks Saddam Hussein was responsible for the terrorist attacks depicted in that deeply flawed production.

All of which makes Keith Olbermann an even more remarkable phenomenon. Most remarkable is that Olby is still on the air, because for the past few years he has made a target of Bill O'Reilly, whose reactionary and often incoherent rants have made him not just a broadcaster but a powerful industry.

Well, there are no more Ed Murrows around. Or Walter Cronkites either. Keith Olbermann is virtually the only progressive voice available to us on either broadcast or cable.

And never was that truth more apparent than in his blistering critique of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's recent American Legion speech, in which Rumsfeld drew a parallel between those who disagree with the Bush administration and those who appeased Hitler in the 1930s.

So unusual in our time is Olbermann's commentary on Rumsfeld that it is worth repeating here in full: 08/30/06: Mr. Rumsfeld, There Is Fascism.


(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. Martin County Democratic Executive Committee has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is Martin County Democratic Executive Committee endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)